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4 Hours w/ RSD: Realtime

Realtime and the Game

When we were working on 3rd Edition, one of the questions that we thought a lot about was “how long do you play the game in one sitting”.

Most of us remember marathon games that lasted so long nobody bothered to track the hours played. But we also know that lots of groups play for very defined time blocks. One of the most accessible was the RPGA, which designed scenarios for convention play in 4 hour increments.

That became the baseline for the overall design. We expected people would play in either 4 or 8 hour time blocks. This becomes meaningful when you consider that one of the design objectives of 3rd Edition was for people to play all the way from 1st to 20th level – we had to estimate how long people would play in order to sanity-check that goal. If the answer was “20 years”, we probably couldn’t achieve it. If the answer was “6 months”, it was probably too short to allow players and GMs to achieve mastery at each level.

In the 2nd Edition era, playing from 1st to 20th level was extremely rare. The way the XP curve was shaped attaining levels beyond 15th was extraordinarily hard. In the 2nd Edition game, after about 10th level, character power was much more a factor of gear than it was of character level. We wanted to change that in 3rd Edition and get people interested in playing all the way to the end of the game system.

The Challenge Rating, Encounter Level and XP curve system of 3rd Edition were designed so that players would spend roughly the same amount of time in each level. On average, a level should take about two to three game sessions – 8-12 hours of play. Assuming a group played once a week for 4 hours and with some leeway for missed sessions, a campaign from 1st to 20th level should take about a year.

These are good rules of thumb regardless of what game you're playing - characters should see a significant increase in power on some regular schedule because that reinforces many of the things that tabletop RPG players expect from their hobby.

Given those assumptions one area you can focus on when thinking about ways to make your game session more satisfactory is to think about what you’ll be doing during those 4 hours of realtime.

Starting and Stopping

Most groups don’t have the ability to start right on time and stop after exactly 4 hours of play. You’ll want to allow time for the group to assemble, to set up the play area, to distribute snacks and drinks, for a little chit-chat, etc at the beginning of each session. Likewise, at the end of the game you’ll want to reserve some time to break down the game area and make sure that loose ends and notes are tidied up. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that your 4 hour game session will take 5 hours to complete start to finish.

Old School Roleplaying

As a veteran of campaigns all the way back to the Blue Book, I am always amused by the assumptions that the original TSR designers must have been working with compared to their 3.x descendants. Since they were likely basing their designs more off their actual experience rather than any research or quantitative analysis, it’s easy to see how they ended up with designs like B2: Keep on the Borderlands, which features 64 encounter areas in the Caves of Chaos, plus the wilderness area around the Keep & Caves, plus the Keep itself. Though the module is rated for characters 1-3 level if you have played through it you’ll know that many groups end up with much higher level characters by the time they’re done.

One of my friends once added up the XP and treasure that could be gained from a complete success in S1: Tomb of Horrors, and arrived at a figure several times the recommendations for both in the 1st Edition DMG. And if you look at something like Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits or H4: Throne of Bloodstone, even those figures are conservative. On the other hand, those designers were working within a framework that assumed a certain amount of irrevocable character death, loss of character power through things like level draining, the regular use of henchmen and hirelings to soak up damage (and XP), and other aspects of the earlier editions of the game that have been substantially reduced in the modern game.

Realtime as a Resource

Look at the example of play from the 3.0 DMG (pp. 130-132). The first “major encounter” is the PCs vs. a room with monstrous spiders. The encounter description (DMG pp.126-127) is not very lengthy, but when you read through the example of play you can see how this encounter could take up 20-40 minutes of realtime (especially with new players just learning the game). As encounters get progressively more complicated and characters get progressively more complex, the rate at which players can “clear” an area will decrease.

Once you begin your game session, you’ll want to manage those 4 hours carefully. Think of that time as a limited resource that you “spend” for entertainment. As the GM you want to get the most out of that time that you can. As a player you should be trying to maximize the fun and minimize the distractions.

Generally speaking you should expect to complete 4 significant encounters and 2-3 minor encounters per 4 hour game session. A significant encounter is one usually involving combat against multiple opponents and a consumption of party resources equivalent to about a quarter of daily consumables (hit points, spells, etc.) A minor encounter is one that is usually a non-combat encounter that requires problem solving but not an expenditure of daily resources (a trap, an NPC negotiation, etc.)

Consider the first 3.0 Adventure Path module The Sunless Citadel. There are 56 numbered encounter areas in the adventure. About 35 of them are “major encounters”. Playing through this scenario should take about nine four hour sessions, leading nicely into The Forge of Fury, which is designed for characters who begin at 3rd level. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bastion of Broken Souls, the final chapter in the first Adventure Path has only about 30 encounter areas total. By this point individual major encounters have become so complicated that maybe only one or two can be resolved per session. Characters in this scenario (starting at 18th level) and their opponents put a massive design load on the system to the extent that some of the core pacing assumptions are starting to break. Play on into Epic Levels just increases this issue. In a multi-year 3.0 campaign I played in by the time we were in epic levels we usually managed to play one really big encounter per game session.

One major encounter per 4 hours just isn’t enough to keep a group of players well entertained. There’s too much downtime as references are consulted and strategy is worked out, and an individual characters “turn” can take an agonizingly long time to resolve.

Getting in 4 major encounters is a pretty satisfying experience. Everyone should have a chance to showcase their character’s unique abilities. Enough resources will be consumed per encounter that the players will need to be creative and be paying attention to each other to provide aid and assistance as needed. The minor encounters also add opportunities for low-stress roleplaying and backstory development.

One tactic I have seen used to great effect is having an egg timer (or the timer on your cell phone) remind everyone of the time passing. Every half hour when the chime goes off take stock of your progress. If you’re resolving encounters more quickly than the DM expected you might want to consider ending the session earlier than planned (or making everyone aware that you’re likely to be leveling characters earlier than expected). If you’re behind schedule, look for ways to pick up the pace by eliminating out-of-game distractions.

Planning the Session

Humans respond naturally to stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends. If you can deliver that experience during each game session, you’ll create a more rewarding game than if you don’t. Since most campaigns don’t begin and end in one session you need to think about ways to introduce story pacing in the middle of an adventure.

Think of The Empire Strikes Back. It is the middle chapter of a story and has a lot of exposition. You learn more about the Force, you learn about the Skywalker family’s backstory, you see a romance develop between Han and Leia, and you witness one epic battle and one epic confrontation (Hoth and Luke vs Vader in Cloud City). That’s an amazing amount of content for what amounts really to “the events that happen between the destruction of two Death Stars”.

Soap opera writers face this same challenge. Each daily episode needs to be dramatic and interesting, even though the plot lines that are being developed may stretch over years (or even decades). Finding ways to keep the audience interested in what is happening today is the key to the writer’s art on these shows.

There are some techniques that we can borrow from other forms of episodic entertainment to help structure the session to create a rewarding experience.

First, consider the setup.

It may have been weeks since the last time the group gathered to play. Before play begins take a few minutes to review what happened in the last session. This has a dual purpose – it frames the upcoming session with a “beginning”, and it serves as a place to ensure that both the players and the GM are on the same page. It is also a place where the GM can remind players of key clues or plot threads that were developed in previous sessions (even if the players missed them the first time around!)

Second, define the stakes.

The PCs are unlikely to be able to make big changes to the game world in any given session (unless it’s the climax encounter). Still they should care about what’s happening in the immediate moment. Remind them that the princess’ parents are increasingly worried about their abducted daughter, or that the epidemic raging in the village is worsening as each day passes, or whatever it is that has set the characters on the path to adventure.

Third, set some goals.

Think about the encounter areas the PCs are likely to reach in the session. Pushing them forward and building drama are important parts to the story. Are they finding clues (or evidence that reminds them of the stakes?) Are they gaining critical insights into their foes that they’ll use in the Big Battle at the End? Are they noticing and collecting supplies they may need if their ability to retreat is cut off? Are they locating and securing places where they can rest safely? Are they hiding their tracks and limiting the chances that someone (or some thing) will notice their presence and begin to actively search for them?

If they’re not, you (either you the GM or you a player) can gently prod the group to think about and do these things. If they refuse, they’re electing to face the consequences. Either way, opportunities were created to add more entertainment to the 4 hour session.

Some Tactics for Good Storytelling within a Session

Consider the value of repeat enemies. Seeing the same opponent in several encounters will shape the player’s perceptions of the adventure. Often you can make a minor monster something that the players will go out of their way to destroy just because of the nuisance factor it has introduced into their game session. Major villains should be used sparingly in this role otherwise the players will feel that their efforts have no point or that the GM will “cheat” to save a villain from overly successful players robbing them of the rewards for good (or smart) play.

Tailor threats to the player’s capabilities. A monster that turns opponents to stone is manageable if the characters have access to some way to remove that state. But if they don’t it can be bad in multiple ways. A player with a petrified character isn’t going to have much fun if the session continues. And if the party is seriously debilitated by the petrification their ability to survive further encounters may be substantially reduced. As the GM it’s easy to swap abilities on opponents to match the party’s resources. Use disease, stunning, sleep, and other state changes in place of petrification, for example. You can also plan ahead by having logical treasure that can overcome a setback – like the skeleton of a previous victim with a vital scroll or potion to be discovered after the battle.

In Closing

Realtime is your most constrained resource. Use it wisely.

--RSD / Atlanta, March 2011
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Ryan S. Dancey


El Mahdi

Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
Excellent and usable advice. I like using an episodic approach to game sessions also. I've learned a few things from this I can add to my games. Thanks!


Community Supporter
Good advice but...

1) mostly incompatible with big dungeon crawls where you are 'in media res' for weeks on end until hitting the end boss/goal.

2) it highlights major design flaws in 3e - if at epic level you can only manage one major encounter in 4 hours, and that one encounter isn't 'fun' (or fun enough), then your game has some big issues. Which this advice isn't going to help with...


Each session can have a beginning, a middle and and and regardless of the point in the story where that session occurs.

You "frame" that session as the GM. The start is your recap of what happened in the last session, the middle is the play of that session, and the end is whatever cleanup you do after play ceases (award XP, raise dead, etc.)

This was a great column and using it as a guide, I could easily look back on past sessions that had seemed either too sluggish or too frenetic and see why they had gone astray. I'm just getting back to GMing in a regular capacity with Pathfinder and will be keeping a copy of this column with me at the table!

El Mahdi

Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
Good advice but...

1) mostly incompatible with big dungeon crawls where you are 'in media res' for weeks on end until hitting the end boss/goal.

2) it highlights major design flaws in 3e - if at epic level you can only manage one major encounter in 4 hours, and that one encounter isn't 'fun' (or fun enough), then your game has some big issues. Which this advice isn't going to help with...
Big dungeon crawls usually have a ton of plot hooks that accompany the adventure: secrets need to be aquired or discovered to advance, factions within the dungeons residents, different parts of the dungeon have different themes, etc. Frame the game session around one or two of those themes or hooks. Along with recapping the previous session and refreshing the players memories as to what plots, secrets, or factions they are dealing with or searching for, then wrapping up at a natural conclusion or break point, and Voila...you've got an episodic big dungeon crawl game session.:)

Also, this isn't a major design flaw of 3E. It may be something that you don't like, or doesn't fit your gaming style, but it works just fine for many others...including me. A major design flaw is something that is objectively and universally bad. Something that bothers only a percentage of users, is specifically about preference and opinion, not design shortcomings...:hmm:


Very interesting article.

One other thing (apologies if I'm jumping ahead to a future article topic) I'd heavily recommend is ending on a point of discovery or decision. In either case, you give the players something to chew on until the next session, which allows them to plan what they want to do next session outside of valuable game time, and keeps them thinking about and interested in the game between sessions. Email is your friend.


Very interesting article.

One other thing (apologies if I'm jumping ahead to a future article topic) I'd heavily recommend is ending on a point of discovery or decision. In either case, you give the players something to chew on until the next session, which allows them to plan what they want to do next session outside of valuable game time, and keeps them thinking about and interested in the game between sessions. Email is your friend.
I agree. I once had a Dm who liked to end every game (if possible) with a cliffhanger. Once in a while he stretched things a little too much, but for the most part it had us talking about it until next game, where we were anxious and ready to go. ;)


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